The Life of a Soviet Union Musician: A Profile of Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich is viewed as a revolutionary of his time, whose music forms a large component of the classical repertoire. Despite his struggles, he was able to characterize an entire era of music through his passion and talent that shaped the sound of the 20th century.


Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0002792_002_Portrait_Dmitri_Dmitrijewitsch_Schostakowitchs_im_Publikum_der_Bachfeier.jpg: Roger & Renate Rössing, credit Deutsche Fotothek.derivative work: Improvist, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a portrait of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, taken during the Bach Celebration of July 28th, 1950. The photo was taken by Roger and Renate Rössing.

Artists have always struggled to create authentically without being ridiculed. In the Soviet Union, though, the consequences went far past social exclusion — many faced imprisonment and persecution for creating art with anti-government sentiments.

Musicians of the Soviet Union did not let this stop them and instead channeled their struggles into their artistic voice. They’ve remained revolutionary and influential to this day, as some of their music is taught in prestigious conservatories and played in world-class halls, sharing the messages they wish to share without consequence. 

When talking about the music of the 20th century and the Soviet Union, the minds of most modern-day classical musicians almost instantly go to the revolutionary Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. On September 25th, 1906, Shostakovich was born to typical members of the Russian liberal middle class, his mother, a piano teacher, and his father, a chemist. By the age of 11, Shostakovich witnessed the collapse of the Tsarist empire, the Bolsheviks rise to power, and following it, the land’s deterioration to chaos. 

The young Shostakovich began his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied piano and composition at age 13. His music rebelled against musical norms and maintained the value in Russian art of embracing the grotesque, similar to the writer Nikolai Gogol. 

To make a living as a young artist, Shostakovich began to score music for film. This didn’t take away from his artistry, and he often added his own touch to the scores. In the 1929 film New Babylon, directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, Shostakovich often quotes Offenbach’s famous “Can-Can” in the score to characterize a decadent middle class. The music in New Babylon represents a development in young Shostakovich as he finds his voice as an artist. 

The opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, perhaps was a defining moment in his musical career, as it was the start of his rocky relationship with Joseph Stalin. What was initially praised as a triumph of modern opera in Russia was later denounced as a “formalistic concoction of the bourgeoisie” by the article “Muddle Instead of Music” in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda.  The Pravda article was anonymously published, which is how the Soviet party at that time made their opinion known, as the article could not be published without Stalin’s knowledge. Shostakovich said that “It was not the music which Stalin had disliked, but he was disturbed that the murderer faced retribution in the opera.” 

Lady Macbeth changed Shostakovich’s life, as he came to the attention of Stalin, and he was to be carefully watched from now on. He was in great danger as the Great Terror was at its height, and Shostakovich’s music began to tell of this — the feeling of going to bed not knowing if you’ll wake up there in the morning. His music not only spoke of the fear and despair he experienced, but also the loneliness of his situation. 

In response to the Pravda article, Shostakovich wrote his 4th symphony. He wanted it to be performed, but due to his situation, it would have been dangerous, so he had to publicly withdraw the work. It was packed with serious, melancholic, and elegiac music, and became Shostakovich’s personal response to tyranny.

In his 5th symphony, he responded to being classified as an enemy of the people by publicly committing himself to socialist realism. He called it “the molding of a personality,” though he had a difficult time maintaining moral and artistic integrity while protecting himself from execution. The symphony symbolizes the triumph over power and the embrace of personality, with the fear of being recognized in the threatening atmosphere of the Soviet Union. The premiere of the piece was a “triumphal success” and received an ovation that is said to have lasted over half an hour. Similar to German baroque composer J.S. Bach, Shostakovich adds a personal touch to the symphony by signing his initials within the music using the four-note sequence D-Eb-C-B, the German equivalent being D-Sch. 

The experience of conductor and pianist Oliver Hagen perfectly encapsulates how many musicians feel hearing this work for the first time. He said, “I remember playing Shosty 5 in the New York Youth Symphony during my senior year of high school. I’ll never forget the first run-through, with the gloriously overwhelming sensation of the high trumpets at the conclusion. I also remember letting out a loud cry in response to the sublimely sudden tam-tam in the middle of the 4th movement. My section members were amused.”

Dmitri’s 7th symphony, Leningrad, reflects the war of 1941 and expresses resistance against fascism. He said, “The piece is dedicated to our fight against fascism, our victory, and to Leningrad, my hometown.” Shostakovich dedicated his work to the endless struggle between good and evil, his voice surrounded by evil but striving for good. 

One of my personal favorites is Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony. There is a good deal of superstition around the ninth symphony, much of it spread by composer Gustav Mahler. Since Beethoven’s ninth, one of the most popular symphonies, many composers either did not live to compose their ninth, or died shortly after. However, as the Soviet Union had just won against Nazi Germany in World War II, it was expected of Shostakovich to write a symphony grand enough to live up to these “Big Ninth” expectations. Though characteristic in nature, he wrote a short, humorous, almost sardonic symphony that Leonard Bernstein called an “anti-ninth.” The piece screams out a story of celebration and victory, with Shostakovich being the comedic anti-hero. 

In 1948, at the conference of the Composers Union, the accusation of formalism was leveled at Shostakovich, and it became forbidden to perform his music. When the iron curtain fell after the Cold War, the West began to condemn everything Russian. Russia had replied by criticizing all influences from the West, above all, those in art. His wife said that “Dmitri suffered under this repression his whole life long, it preoccupied him deeply, and he attempted to express this feeling of constant threat in his music.”

In 1949, the ban was lifted and Shostakovich’s career was rehabilitated in the name of a bureaucratic error. After the death of Stalin in 1953, Shostakovich premiered his 10th symphony. In his book of memoirs he writes, “I did depict Stalin in the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that’s the basis.” Similar to his 5th, Shostakovich also uses a musical signature within this symphony to say, “This work, this story, this music is mine.” 

The art that Dmitri Shostakovich created displays the power of music and how it can say so much without saying a word. Composer and educator, Eric Chernov, said something that encapsulates how Shostakovich’s music, and all music, has documented the human experience: “All music has a time and a place.”

When talking about the music of the 20th century and the Soviet Union, the minds of most modern-day classical musicians almost instantly go to the revolutionary Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich.